“What type of lunacy be this?” the Mitikuan general asked, after scanning the oncoming throng. It certainly was not what he, or any of the other military leaders would have ever anticipated.
Interspersed among Madumda’s warriors was a vast assemblage of civilians, armed with an assortment of common weapons and farm implements. The ages of these new ‘volunteers’ ranged from pre-adolescence to the very aged, and were comprised of both sexes. However, there was something odd about these new ‘fighters’ that troubled the onlookers.
As Beraut scanned this group more closely, he could tell their movements appeared to be stiff and controlled, which provided him with his first clue about who or what they were. They also wore blank expressions upon their faces, as if they were unaware of anything happening around them. Any onlooker would have expected these typical non-combatants to look frightened, angry or at least concerned, but their faces showed absolutely no emotion at all. As Beraut observed the manner in which they were moving forward, as if guided by some unseen force, the Mitikuan general spoke again and broke his concentration.
“These be not warriors,” he stated, with great concern and annoyance. “An army doth not battle women, children and the elderly. What manner of foe be this?”
“It is only conjecture on my part, but I believe this is something I’d heard about in my youth – something one of my elder, magical brothers forewarned me about. He explained that after Madumda turned on the Council of Wizards, the older mages went through the volumes of black magic the Dark Lord had been studying, to see what types of things he might have learned. The senior mages then filled me in concerning each tidbit of information that might later prove useful, and I believe the result of one of those enchantments is what I see here.
“I can only barely recall his words,” Beraut went on, “but he informed me about a procedure that would allow the user to completely control the mind and will of another. Anyone possessing this knowledge could, therefore, make an army of puppets and command them to do whatever he wished. The beings so affected were referred to as the Soulless Ones, because they were no longer in control of their own actions and would not have any feelings about what they might be commanded to do.”
“Why doth the Dark Lord deem it necessary to utilize civilians to fight?” the Mitikuan wanted to know. “Doth he believeth these creatures can be effective against seasoned warriors?”
“No, but I suspect Madumda has another, more devious reason for using them,” the wizard replied, while conjecturing about the Dark Lord’s purpose for utilizing these combatants at this particular moment.
“Thou cannot expect our fighting men to battle such a foe!” the General exclaimed, shocked by the thought. “Warriors only battle other warriors, not peasants. How canst we inspire our men to do battle with an opponent whom they hath been trained to protect by our codes of honor?”
“I believe you have just answered your own previous question,” the wizard told him. “I suspect Madumda is using the Soulless Ones to raise doubts amongst our fighting men and gnaw away at their confidence. I believe this will be a case where our troops must be instructed to merely defend themselves from any enemy that is trying to do them harm. It will be up to us to convince them that in this situation it is kill or be killed. We must get our warriors to focus on the fact that this army has no intent or will of its own. They will be dueling solely with the Dark Lord’s control of these individuals and not the old men, women and youngsters they see before them.”
Nasrollah merely nodded his understanding, although he was dismayed by the thought of what they were about to be called upon to do. Without hesitation, the General quickly informed several messengers about the nuances of this new foe and what the soldiers would need to do. Then, he sent them out to inform all of the officers about this new situation, so they could share these new orders and warnings with those under their command.
Looking at the faces of those receiving this news, it was immediately evident that these professional soldiers were not at ease with what they had just been commanded to do. It totally contradicted their many years of training and forced them to deal with the appropriateness of following the orders from those in command. Luckily, their conditioning to obey commands took precedence over their inner conflict and emotional turmoil, so they quickly concluded they would need to do whatever was required, in order to make sure the kingdom survived.
As the allies continued to watch this unusual throng of fighters approach, interspersed with the more traditional units of black-clad troopers, they braced themselves, both physically and mentally, for what was to come. Even though they were more comfortable fighting the traditional opponents, there was little they could do to change the situation, so they would have to do whatever was necessary.
Once the two sides clashed, it became evident that the Soulless Ones were not capable fighters, but it didn’t mean they weren’t a threat. It soon became abundantly clear that these beings could distract an opponent long enough for one of the other mindless creatures or one of Madumda’s regulars to slay him. For that reason, it didn’t take very long before the Tarolian warriors’ survival instincts began to kick in. They quickly came to the realization that they would either have to do away with these civilians or risk being killed instead.
The Soulless Ones came at them carrying meat cleavers, knives, pitchforks, scythes and sickles, but their movements were not fluid. None of them could react very well to the countering blows that were delivered, so it didn’t take a great deal of effort to do away with such clumsy fighters. If the soldiers fighting them had been aware of the pitiful existence these mindless beings had been enduring while trapped in this state, then this wouldn't have bothered then so badly. The allied warriors most likely would have concluded they were doing the Soulless Ones a huge favor by ending their meaningless lives, if that’s truly what their existence could be called.
The Soulless Ones, however, also claimed their own fair share of victims along the way, by quickly adapting one very specific technique. In order to accommodate their lack of ability, these individuals would attack in groups, with all of them stabbing at the same target repeatedly. They also tried to do this while their victim was engaged with a more competent combatant and this proved to be a very effective strategy. It also allowed them to impact the battle.
Bodies were now beginning to mount more quickly than normal along the battle lines, since the Soulless Ones were defeated much easier than the trained troopers. Due to this fact, it was becoming more difficult for the soldiers to move about so they could defend themselves. The fighting men had to be very careful not to trip over the numerous corpses that were now littering the ground, because if they did it would quickly place them in severe jeopardy. Whenever a soldier stumbled and fell, the Soulless Ones would immediately surround that person and begin to stab simultaneously until the warrior could no longer fight back.
After witnessing a few occurrences of this nature, the allies rapidly started to become callous when dealing with this odd collection of opponents. Even though they were still more at ease when facing off against one of the true professionals, they no longer hesitated before doing away with one of these civilian fighters.
The fighting was intense and both sides were fully engaged. The battle was raging all around, when without warning or explanation; the entire army of Soulless Ones fell limp and lifeless where they stood. They all dropped to the ground in unison, as if the same singular blow had killed each of them at the same moment. This surprised and shocked both sides equally and the fighting temporarily came to a halt.
After witnessing this dramatic turn of events, the black-clad troops suddenly became bothered by the loss of yet another of their supernatural cohorts. First, Madumda had unexpectedly left the battlefield without a word of explanation and then Beraut had wounded or defeated the four condors. Now, the Soulless Ones fell simultaneously, without having been killed by another combatant. This combination of these events was more than enough to shake Madumda's army's confidence and made them question their beliefs in this cause.
After this happened, many of the Dark Lord’s warriors chose to withdraw from the battle, before their opponents had time to take advantage of this new development. Not only that, but the enemy warriors appeared to be totally unconcerned about how their officers might react to what they were doing, since they thought the loss of the Soulless Ones was another extremely bad omen. They felt it meant that someone else had been able to counter Madumda’s magic, and if it were true it also meant his army probably had little chance of being victorious. Having come to this conclusion, they quickly turned tail and ran.
This combination of events left the allies befuddled and unable to comprehend exactly what had happened as well. Not only were they unable to understand what had felled the Soulless Ones, but they were also completely bewildered when the regulars suddenly disengaged them too. The battle was far from over, so the only logical explanation they could foresee for breaking off contact so unexpectedly would be to make way for a new adversary to take their place. Considering this possibility, the allied troops began to prepare for the return of the condors or maybe even Madumda.
Fearing the worst, the allied warriors quickly started to scan the entire area around them, both land and air, to determine if such a foe was approaching. After discovering no new threats in the vicinity, the warriors turned to their superiors, hoping they could provide the needed answers. When the officers couldn't explain what had just taken place either, the warriors searched for the wizard. They needed to get his take on the situation.
Beraut had also been surprised by this recent change in fortune, but he did have sufficient background knowledge to make a conjecture about why it had occurred. Seeing the questioning faces turning in his direction, he signaled for their attention and began to address their concerns.
“Although I cannot tell you precisely what just happened, I can make a few educated guesses about what caused the demise of the Soulless Ones. First of all, it could be that Madumda was distracted by something more pressing and simply lost control of his mindless forces. It is also possible that someone else has somehow countered the Dark Lord’s magic and released their souls from his control. Another remote possibility would be that Madumda has been destroyed, which would thus negate all of his black magic.”
There was now a great deal of murmuring throughout the ranks, as everyone mulled over these possibilities. However, none of the proposals seemed to make much sense to them. After a few minutes of awkward silence, one brave soul decided to speak up and ask the question many of them had been thinking.
“But who, besides yourself, has the power to do any of those things?” he wanted to know. The wizard merely shook his head, before he answered.
“I informed you earlier that I had given another person control over some magical power,” he explained, “so I would suspect this is somehow his doing.”
“You mean he’d have enough power to do those things?” another warrior shot back, still not believing it possible. Looking chagrinned, Beraut felt he needed to explain the situation in more detail.
“I suspect it is time to tell you more about who this individual is,” the wizard replied. “Up until now, this has been a well-guarded secret, but seeing Madumda is most likely already aware of this person’s existence and identity, I can see little harm in disclosing this information to you now. An heir of Ethelbert has survived and entered the fortress at Treblanc, in search of the Sword of Kings.”
After several seconds of confused murmuring throughout the ranks, someone else screamed back, “What’s that?”
“Don’t the bards still sing about Tarolia’s glorious history any longer?” Beraut challenged, in disgust.
The wizard found it difficult to believe that no one knew anything about the talisman and why it was created. Shaking his head in disbelief, he continued.
“It is an extremely powerful weapon, which was produced for the sole purpose of dealing with the Dark Lord,” the wizard offered in explanation.
“Do you think this heir has killed Madumda then?” another person shouted.
“It is one possibility, but I seriously doubt that has happened,” Beraut stated. “I believe I would have felt something more powerful if anything of that nature had occurred, but as of yet I have had no indication that anything of such significance has taken place. I think it best that we not dwell on what might have happened, because we shall learn what took place soon enough. Since it is getting late and the light will soon be fading, we must set about locating and tending to our wounded. We shall also prepare to march on Treblanc, first thing in the morning.”
Immediately, work details were formed and sent out to perform the duties they were assigned. The various groups worked throughout the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening, busily taking care of everyone who needed attention. They tended to their own troops and stabilized them where they were found. Once the field treatment had been rendered, the injured were then transport back to camp, so they could receive further care.
These work parties used torches and lanterns to see by, once the final rays of daylight had faded, as they continued to provide care to those who couldn’t take care of themselves. Once again, they were faced with the dilemma of whether they should assist the Dark Lord’s injured troops as well. Even though they were tired, they collectively decided to do whatever they could to treat Madumda’s injured as well, before they grew too weary to continue.
The allied soldiers were willing to do this because they realized they would eventually have to live in fairly close proximity to these individuals or their kin once the war ended. Since they would rather not have to battle these groups at another time, they felt that by showing some compassion it would go a long way toward changing any preconceived notions the enemy harbored about them. They also figured it might somehow make up for any wrongs that had occurred previously and would help to reunite these renegade factions back into the kingdom, once Madumda had been eliminated.
After these duties had been completed, the fighters began to unwind and recoup their strength, ending another long day’s efforts. It was during this time that Beraut sat down with a group of cadre from the Northern Army and persuaded one of their senior officers to fill him in about why they had arrived so late.
“I will be happy to tell you what happened, but it is quite a lengthy story,” the Akiktite general informed him. Beraut nodded his consent, so he continued.
“Upon leaving our homeland, the army of the combined northern city-states set out to arrive at our pre-established rendezvous point. Before this could happen, however, we had to make our way past the Faerie Forest, which you know surrounds the northern edge of the Devil’s Horseshoe. We were planning to stay close to the woods but not enter it, as we made our way to Hell’s Gate. From there, we were going to journey to the spot where we were scheduled to meet up with the river elves.
“It all began routinely enough, as we made our trek beside the lush woods of the Faerie Forest, but we soon discovered the entire area was heavily populated by Madumda’s troops. Enemy troops were roaming all over the lands between the Devil’s Horseshoe and the Iron Hills and posed a serious threat to our mission. In an effort to avoid one particular unit of gnomes, we were forced to enter the forest, so we wouldn’t be seen.
"Of course we were wise enough not to venture very far into the woodland, but we were forced to use the trees to help conceal our presence there. To our grave misfortune, though, we soon discovered Madumda was using the entire open expanse as a staging area for his army and we suspected it would be the same all the way to Hell's Gate. For that reason, it was going to be impossible for us to get past them unnoticed.
“Someone suggested we should go farther into the woodland, so we could travel around Madumda’s troops, while still using the trees for cover. We considered it briefly, but we had heard stories about how the magical properties of the forest had previously trapped other unwanted guests. Fearing the same thing would happen to us, we quickly decided against this option.
“Then someone else suggested that we might possibly be able to travel just a short distance inside the woods during the brief hours of dawn and dusk. He thought we could use the limited light and semi-darkness to conceal our presence, but because we wouldn’t be venturing very far away from the outer tree line, we could prevent getting lost or trapped.
"After we discussed the details of this idea, we agreed there were too many of us to pull this off unnoticed. The noise alone, from stepping on dried leaves and dead branches, would be enough to give away our presence there. Even if we were really lucky and somehow didn’t draw attention to ourselves, we felt the enemy would most likely still be able to spot one or more of our soldiers moving about and then come to investigate.
“The only other option we could come up with was to try and wait them out. After a quick discussion, we decided to stay put until they left for battle, but they appeared to be in no hurry to do so. After pondering the situation for some time, we realized they probably wouldn’t march away from the area until the day before they expected the hostilities to commence. That would put us greatly behind schedule and jeopardize our mission, but we could not come up with any other options.
“Even when some of them did begin to leave, they left behind a contingent that was still nearly as large as the size of our army. We figured a confrontation with them would be too costly, so we continued to sit tight. After another day of this idleness, we realized the time factor was becoming crucial. We knew you would be expecting us to join in the fighting soon, since you had given us only ten days from the Second Council of War until our part in the battle plan was to be sprung, and we had already used much of that time up.
“After leaving the war council, it took us nearly two days to journey over the Great Eastern Sea, to get from Leander to Akikta. After that, the other groups still had to travel overland until they arrived at their own cities. It then took them three additional days to reach their homes, get everything organized and then return to the place where we would combine our forces. This meant we had only five days left to get to the battle, six if things didn’t go as planned. We knew it would be barely enough time as it was, since it was quite a lengthy march, especially since we had to move through territory under the control of the enemy.
“We had already used up another day since we joined together, just to reach the fringes of the Faerie forest, and now we were on our third-day of being stuck in this enchanted woodland. We were all becoming extremely frustrated, and that’s when things began to change.
“We had been continually debating how we were going to extricate ourselves from this situation when my Nardinian counterpart happened to mention your name. He only made a very brief statement, simply saying that he ‘hated to let Beraut and the rest of Tarolia down.’ Right after he made this slip, a voice responded to us out of the darkness."
“Who are you and what is your mission?” it demanded.
“None of us were sure it would be wise to answer, so we remained silent. We thought Madumda might be using his magic to keep us trapped in the forest and was now using it to attempt to discover our plans. When we did not answer its query, the voice spoke again."
“If you are truly aligned with Beraut, then you must also be aware of the name of the surviving heir of Ethelbert."
“Without thinking, I blurted out, ‘What’s Kieren got to do with this?’ When I realized what I had done, I feared I had betrayed a confidence and revealed the secret you had worked so long and hard to keep. There was nothing I could do to take back my words, however, so I began to pray this obstacle was not of Madumda’s doing.”
Beraut simply nodded, to let the military leader know he understood how such a blunder could have been made and that he was not upset about it. Feeling better, the officer went on with his story.
“It seemed an eternity before the voice spoke again, but this time it informed us that it would assist us in getting to where we needed to go. Suddenly, a pathway opened up amid the trees and it was almost as if the trees had actually moved to make this route appear. The voice then spoke again."
"Follow this trail and it will guide you to the southern fringes of the forest and bring you to Shadow Lake."
“We briefly debated if doing this would be wise, since it would obviously be taking us farther into the depths of the woodland. We still feared this might just be a way to trap us completely and keep us from getting to the fighting. After some very heated arguments, however, we felt we had little to lose, except maybe not arriving here at all, but there was just so much to be gained. Therefore, we took a chance and did as we were told.
“You might say we were pleasantly surprised to discover the path led us to the spot where the Faerie Forest abutted the northern edge of Shadow Lake. From there, we chose to travel along the western shore of the lake, between the water and the mountains, which would allow us to completely bypass Hell’s Gate. We chose to go on that side of the lake, because we feared the elves might have already gone ahead, once they thought we weren’t going to make it. Since we decided to travel along the western shore of the river, we were already on the side we needed to be on to join up with you and wouldn’t get stranded. If we were on the other side and the elves weren’t there, we’d be stuck, with no way to get across the river.
"The route we followed was certainly not one we would have ever devised on our own, but it did prove to be extremely beneficial. It saved us from being discovered or having to experience a dreadful early showdown with Madumda’s forces, which most certainly would have happened, if we had to exit the woods and move through Hell’s Gate.” At that point a confused voice from among those listening spoke up.
“Excuse me, but I don’t see how a pathway could suddenly open up for you. Trees can’t just move about at will. And who spoke to you?”
“I think I may be the only one who can explain what happened,” Beraut began, “but I must take you back to a time when the Council of Wizards first selected Treblanc as its home. The Council was always concerned that others would seek to break in to the fortress, so they could steal the secrets contained within its library. For that reason, the Council did many things to protect itself from such threats. One of the ways they chose to guard against such an intrusion was to plant an enchanted forest around the northern and eastern borders of the Devil’s Horseshoe.
“The wood sprites and wood nymphs that dwell there,” the wizard went on, “still possess the ability to move about and rearrange themselves, thus giving them the opportunity to delay or trap unwanted visitors. Madumda was never able to exert any influence over these beings and they have worked very hard to frustrate those aligned with him. It is my hunch the spirits of the forest were watching you closely to see if you were working for the Dark Lord. If that were the case, then it was fortunate that someone inadvertently blurted out my name in frustration.”
“It is one indiscretion I would gladly repeat,” the Nardinian military leader confessed. This brought about a little good-natured snickering, as those present teased him about his breech of military decorum.
“Now, sir, would you please continue your story?” the wizard urged the Akiktite relaying this tale.
“There is not a great deal more to tell,” the officer confessed. “After we had walked along this path and reached the point where we would no longer have the mountains to shield our movements, we decided to wait until it was dark before we continued our journey. Under a limited amount of moonlight, we walked along the banks of the Shadow Lake until it reached the place where it emptied into the Shadow River. Then we followed the river until we reached the northern edge of the Mystic Forest.
“Seeing we had reached the original rendezvous point, we then did everything we could to let the elves know we were there, just in case they were still waiting for us. We feared they might have given up hope and had already left to participate in the battle without us, since we were so dreadfully late arriving, but we decided it would be best to make certain first. To our great surprise, they were still there. If you want more of this story, though, I think it would be best if I let the elf’s senior officer relate his leg of the journey and finish the tale.”
After hearing this pronouncement, the elfin captain who had been sitting inconspicuously near the back of the group was coaxed to move forward. It was now his turn to tell about the river elves’ experiences on this mission. Although reluctant, he did as he was asked.
“Our journey was not nearly as interesting as the northern army’s adventures, although I am grateful we had an easier time of it. After our delegation returned to Eurielle following the Second Council of War, we immediately loaded several merchant ships with cargo and troops, as our part in the war effort. We then set sail for Leander, like any of our merchant fleets might routinely do, and unloaded a token amount of goods when we arrived there. After that, we sailed up the Shadow River to Cassander and continued our deception by removing more items there.
“Our ships had been fitted with false interior walls that gave us hidden rooms in which we housed our warriors and shielded them from being spotted by any spies helping to unload the vessels at either location. After we finished removing our cargo at Cassander, we allowed the crew to take shore leave until it got dark, which would have been expected. We boarded the ship again as evening fell and quietly slipped out of port. Under the cover of night, we headed north, which might have raised a few eyebrows if anyone had noticed. However, it seems no one was concerned about what we might do next, since we didn't appear to be a threat or carrying anything that would aid the army in battle.
“Once we reached the place where the Shady River branched from the Shadow River, we took the fork that meandered between the Mystic Forest and the Arden Woods. When we reached the spot where the river bends into the Mystic Forest, we anchored and waited for the northern army to arrive. Seeing that route is seldom used, we were not overly concerned about being discovered. We routinely sent scouts out to see if they could locate the late arriving troops and to also watch for any of Madumda’s henchmen that might have been sent to patrol the area.
“Our scouts did report spotting several contingents of gnomes and Merropite warriors using barges to ford the river north of the Mystic Forest, so they could get to the place where the battle would be waged. Fortunately for us, though, none of them journeyed southward and posed a threat to our plans. We did, however, start to become gravely concerned when our northern friends failed to arrive at the appointed time. This, in turn, led to several intense and heated debates over what we should do next.
“Some of those under my command thought we should go ahead, on our own, and offer what assistance we could to our combined army. Others felt we needed to wait for the Northern Army to arrive, fearing our measly numbers would have only a negligible impact in aiding our cause. After much debate, we agreed it was imperative for us to wait a little longer for the others to arrive.
“After spending more time without hearing any word from them, we had almost decided to go it alone when a scout excitedly reported seeing them in the distance, but on the opposite side of the river. Once we were certain it was the northern army, we ferried our troops over to join them, and from that point on it was an uneventful, yet harried, trek to join you a few hours ago.” Prudently, Beraut waited for the murmuring to die down before he began to speak.
“I, for one, am glad you waited and arrived when you did. I am going to retire now and I urge you all to do the same. We shall begin our march toward Treblanc at first light and it will be near the fortress where the next battle will most likely take place. It is apparent this conflict is nearing its conclusion, and with the continued blessing of the Gods, it shall end in our favor.”
After hearing his final comments, a collective sigh could be heard from those gathered around the wizard. They were all relieved to learn that he believed the conflict would soon come to an end.
Slowly, the warriors began to disperse and the camp gradually grew quiet. The only sounds that could be heard were the light snoring, occasional coughing or other typical nocturnal sounds one might expect from such a large group. Throughout the evening the guards also continued to silently make their rounds, even though no one was expecting anything out of the ordinary to occur.